We all know the weather outside can tremendously impact our daily outlook on life, but what role does it play in our buying behavior and work habits? We associate sunshine with happiness and stormy weather with bad moods and misfortune. Indeed, there is no dearth of research supporting the fact that the forecast can significantly influence individuals’ mood and temperament. For example, increased sunshine is associated with better moods and an increased willingness to help others, and there is a mood disorder -- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) -- characterized by depressive symptoms brought on by the winter months. It’s pretty much common sense in today’s day and age that nice weather makes us happy, but can it actually affect our daily behavior? The answer, it turns out, is yes, and researchers are working to figure out exactly how and why.
Judgement and perception
One category of behavior the weather can significantly influence is judgment and perception. A study done at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found admissions officers tasked with evaluating college applications weighted academic accomplishments of applicants more heavily on cloudy days and weighted extra-curriculars more heavily on sunny days. Indeed, there seems to be a relationship between bad weather and heightened analytical thinking. In another study, researchers showed on days with good weather, student participants were equally influenced by strong and weak arguments for a new administrative proposal regarding end-of-year examinations, but if the weather was cloudy, they were less inclined to buy into the weak argument. This suggests when the weather turns bad, we are more prone to think rationally about the problems set before us. It has also been argued that bad weather can help boost performance of short-term memory; shoppers who were asked to recall unusual products they saw at a checkout counter on a day with inclement weather were able to more accurately remember the items compared to those who went shopping on a day with nice weather.
Other research has shown productivity increases in the workplace when weather is bad, compared to when it is sunny outside. For example, a study from Harvard Business School showed that employees at banks entered data faster when it was raining outside. (Click to Tweet!) You might have predicted this, since we just discussed how bad weather leads us to be more analytical and perhaps, therefore, more focused on completing cerebral tasks. But the effect is present even in the manual labor industry: automobile makers tend to be more efficient when the weather is subpar. Still, not too surprising: I know I am much more inclined to sit inside and get stuff done if it’s not gorgeous outside! But what exactly is the mechanism driving this seemingly universal human phenomenon?
But WHY does the weather play this big a role?
There are two ways of looking at the issue. First, through the eyes of the economist, we can think about opportunity costs: in terms of threat to leisure, doing work is more costly on sunny days than on rainy days. If there’s no leisure-cost to doing work (as there’s not on cloudy days) the rational choice is to stay inside, do work and, presumably, make money, gain respect, etc.
Alternatively, we can think like a psychologist and analyze the priming and distraction effects in play. If it’s nice outside, you will be primed to think about all the fun things you could do if you weren’t in the office, and therefore be distracted from the task at hand. In this case, it’s a subconscious mechanism, not a rational thought process, that is causing you to be less productive. The researchers at HBS tested this by having students participate in a task-completion study on a bad-weather day and either reminding or not reminding them of activities that take place in the sunshine. They found participants made more mistakes and were less efficient when they were reminded of outside options, suggesting it is indeed the distraction of nice weather that also drives the effects discussed, not necessarily just the tendency of bad weather to induce analytical and rational thinking. We, of course, cannot change the weather, and it may be difficult to overcome the tendencies mentioned here, even if we know about them.